Colorist with an Abstract Bent

As never before, we live in a time of global awareness. In her new series of paintings, Worlds Collide, Merrill Steiger reminds us that today cultures once discrete and isolated grow nearer, making possible both unexpected conflicts and the promise of a new mutuality. The collisions she explores are the ostensible dualities of science and religion, nature and culture, the macrocosmic and the microcosmic. 

In her paintings, Steiger juxtaposes very diverse images, challenging us to see them together in a fresh reality. Her work reflects the intensity of contemporary visuality in all its omnivorous abundance. Steiger evokes both the media world’s flow of images and science fiction, particularly in its cinematic form, with depictions of time travel and teleportation. Space becomes a virtual phenomenon, a psychic dimension where the physical is superceded by the imaginal. 

Steiger’s use of layered images suggests how we experience reality on the screens of computers and other electronic devices. There, the world becomes image, available to sample, manipulate, and mash up. The paintings employ differing modes of representation, ranging from a freely painted realism, to the radical fragmentation of form, to near abstraction. Color is treated with equal latitude, with multiple vibrant color schemes coexisting in a single painting. 

Steiger is a traveler and a pilgrim, having visited a wide range of places, from Japan, Cambodia, and Vietnam, to Australia, and the American Southwest. She has gathered in her new paintings images from many religions, and from natural settings that have for her a spiritual import. In her work, Steiger creates out of many locations and cultures, a new place, a mental space that is a vision of worlds colliding and melding together in unexpected ways. 

In the earlier Unseen Universes series, represented by the multi-panel painting Cosmic Quilt, we are thrust up close to the microscopic world of organic life. In the new work, vistas of time and space open up before us. The painting Valley of the Rock Gods has many of the elements that mark Steiger’s new direction. In an almost hallucinatory scene we find a spiritual site, natural forms, and the biological world. A cruciform of stones marks a spiritual vortex, red rocks stand like gothic cathedral towers, and tiny life forms are greatly magnified. 

Typically, Steiger’s elements suggest other identities: a rock formation known as a hoodoo looks like a Buddha in meditation, while biological forms resemble a tree and flowing topography. Steiger’s work implies that there are common patterns in widely divergent realms, and that a common energy animates existence in its many manifestations. In the painting, Collision, related forms abound, from the brown baskets and bronze vessels, both from Vietnam, to the abstract curves of a crop circle, to a ritual circle of stones, to the brightly colored cells. All of these images are united by a discontinuous landscape of red rocks. 

Steiger’s painting Ancestral Journey has six canvases which can both be viewed individually and together in a unified composition. The painting as a whole takes the viewer on a journey from ancient worlds to deep space. The upper left panel Galactica features a cave, with petroglyphs and cell forms, beyond which are whirling galaxies. The upper right panel Enlightenment has cliffs standing before a cellular expanse, and a stone portal through which can be seen part of Stonehenge, pierced by the rays of the sun. 

The hope for a newly found place is made even more explicit in A Way Out which features a series of spaces, starting with a “room” whose walls are floating microcrobes with a floor made of a Zen rock garden. In the center are traditional Vietnamese sculpted figures and a decorated vase, with a nebulae in the distance. On the far right is the sheer darkness of the cave, with an aperture of light, our possible escape. 

This sense of possible salvation is also conveyed in the painting Redemption. The painting’s subdued left side of three monochrome planets, a crop circle and a Japanese garden contrast with its vivid right side of ornate stained glass windows, a stylized aura, and a blazing radiant sun, all signs of spiritual fulfillment. 

Steiger recognizes that our world is full of cultures in collision – religion against religion, the ecosystem struggling with human development, and faith pitted against science. Yet at the same time, she sees a way out emerging from these clashes in the commonality of our spiritual traditions and in the oneness of everything that is our world.

John Mendelsohn, 2010

John Mendelsohn is a New York-based artist, critic, and professor.